PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - A federal judge on Thursday appointed a prominent local attorney to serve as a special master in a lawsuit over food-stamp delays caused by the state's problem-plagued new computer system for benefits.
U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith named Deming Sherman, an attorney with the law firm Locke Lord, as the special master, which is an individual given broad powers by the court to handle a complex matter. Sherman said he retired from Locke Lord two years ago and is severing ties with the firm, though he is still listed on its website.
The ACLU sued the state earlier this year over the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), the massively expensive new benefits-eligibility system that has been riddled with errors since it launched. The suit alleges that the state is violating federal law by not processing food-stamp applications in a timely fashion.
"There are really two things I need to address right away," Sherman told reporters after Thursday's court hearing. "One is the interest that is being requested by the ACLU, to figure out how to push that. I don't have an answer, but there must be an answer somewhere. And then the second is a longer-term solution to make sure that applications are timely processed and people who need food stamps get them."
"It is a very good solution," Lynette Labinger, an attorney for the ACLU, said of the new special master. "It's unfortunately overdue." A special master was also put in place in New Mexico to deal with social-services problems this year.
The state objected to Sherman's appointment, noting his firm has represented Deloitte, the company that built the UHIP system, in other states. But the judge said he did not see a conflict, calling the state's objection "completely without basis."
Sherman's appointment follows the revelation last month that Deloitte had discovered a new bug in the UHIP system that had left an unknown number of applications unprocessed and unaccounted for. The company, which has been paid about $200 million for its work on UHIP so far, gave the state a new credit of $58 million on the same day the new problem was disclosed.
"When Deloitte started working with the previous administration back in 2012, they promised Rhode Islanders they would deliver a well-functioning system," Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a statement. "More than a year after it launched, Deloitte's Rhode Island Bridges systems has proven time and again to be error-prone, and it's causing real hardship for many Rhode Islanders."
"As soon as I was made aware of the scope of the Deloitte system's problems, I made changes in state leadership and put measures in place to hold Deloitte accountable," she added. "We've recovered more than $85 million from Deloitte in credits and the vendor has given the State a blank check to cover any federal fines that will result from their broken system. I support and appreciate Judge Smith's decision to appoint a Special Master to help us get this system working and deliver the services Rhode Islanders are counting on."
R.I. Department of Human Services Director Courtney Hawkins said after Thursday's court hearing, "I think we are looking forward to working with the special master and are always open to new ideas that someone might have. The recent discovery of the new backlog has certainly been a setback for the department, and we've been laser-focused on administering timely benefits to Rhode Islanders."
The ACLU is requesting that the state give food-stamp applicants gift cards if their applications are overdue.
Separately on Thursday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Patricia Morgan visited a Department of Human Services office to criticize Gov. Gina Raimondo for launching UHIP last year despite warnings from federal officials. "The program simply wasn't ready. But she wanted the headline," Morgan wrote on Facebook. "That's not the way to run our government."